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Fancy Some Fleeting Happiness? Lower Your Expectations

We only feel happy when things turn out better than expected.

Key points

  • There are many recipes for happiness, but people only feel happy when events exceed expectations, research has shown.
  • People tend to get used to good things very quickly and are always searching for new rewards that don't satisfy them for very long.
  • The trick to happiness may be to accept that emotions will inevitably be mixed and to lower expectations.

There are many recipes for happiness, but they are all notoriously unreliable. Some propose paths to happiness with a moral content, such as being kind and altruistic, while self-help books often promote the exact opposite, encouraging us to make it big in life and come first in the daily rat race.

In fact, research has shown that we only feel happy (and then only fleetingly) when events exceed our expectations. This is because we are designed to adapt to any improvements in our lives very quickly and then, almost immediately afterwards, strive for something even better. So the millionaire who, after a hard day at work, expects to be able to sit at the terrace of his luxurious villa overlooking Lake Garda and sip a gin and tonic brought to him by his butler while admiring the sunset will be only moderately happy if this is what actually happens that evening. Nothing will have exceeded his expectations. Conversely, a defect in this idyllic but expected scene – an overcast sky, the gin and tonic a tad warm, or intrusive music from a party in a neighbouring palazzo – will make him feel quite unhappy.

We get used to good things very quickly. In the developed world, most of us don't have to worry about food and shelter, or even entertainment. There are many other good things that we tend to take for granted, such as the love of those close to us or even our health if we are not ill.

I argue in my book that happiness is an impossible project because our DNA doesn’t want to make us happy. It prefers to keep us forever anxious about potential threats and in need of new rewards that will never satisfy us for very long.

The trick then is to accept that our emotions will inevitably be mixed, changeable and messy, and to lower our expectations a little. So a day in which we have enjoyed the company of a loved one, kept our job, seen something funny on TV, and haven't had a heart attack is a good day, and it will deserve a measure of relative happiness.